Playing The Joker

It couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes after a hectic race in Argentina when Brad Binder emerged from a fraught team meeting with his boss. At first glance he and Aki Ajo appeared engaged in the usual post-session debrief, discussing riding performance, bike behaviour and the rest. The year was 2017 and the South African’s Moto2 career was just one month old.

Yet it soon became clear there was something more serious being discussed. Rather than suspension tweaks and riding positions, Ajo could be heard mentioning doctor names, recovery periods and return dates. To the naked eye nothing was out of place. But the reality was different.

That was a dark winter for the-then reigning Moto3 world champion. Rather than celebrating a title success won by a record breaking 142 points, he was sweating over a left arm badly broken in a testing fall in late November. He arrived in Argentina in pain and concerned another layoff was around the corner. The bone hadn’t knitted as expected necessitating another operation prior to the first race.

His worst fears were confirmed on Sunday morning. A jolt during qualifying the day before had moved the limb suddenly and put Binder in considerable pain. X-rays prior to the race showed the arm had broken again. But incredibly he went against the advice of his team and doctors to race on Sunday. He didn’t just race; he went on to claim a fighting ninth place.

Not bad for a class rookie, never mind one with recently re-broken arm. “When I heard I was going to sit on the couch for a bit, it was a bit of a wake up call again I think,” Binder told me immediately after his meeting with Ajo, showing no signs of pain. “I just decided, ‘It doesn’t matter if I go and throw the thing down on the first lap or I make it to the end. If I’m fighting for 20th I might as well crash.’ So I decided to make it count and finishing in ninth is a really strong finish for me.”

That championship year in Moto3 showed Binder was plenty fast. But the Argentina incident – and his subsequent comeback from that injury three races later – demonstrated he has the grit and bloody-mindedness to succeed at the very top. Any keen observer of the Moto2 championship since June will have noticed that force of will at work, as he’s heaved KTM’s below-par chassis to a run of extraordinary results.

No doubt it was this strength of character that was one of many traits highlighted when KTM assessed the options available to replace Johann Zarco for 2020. As announced early on Thursday, it was Binder – not Miguel Oliveira – who got the nod to join up with Pol Espargaro in the factory MotoGP team, while Iker Lecuona takes his place at Tech 3 KTM.

First things first: Oliveira was the conventional choice. He’s the same age as Binder, but has raced in more GPs, fought for more world titles and already has close to a year of experience in the premier class. But sources close to the factory say Tech 3 team boss Hervé Poncharal was promised the Portuguese rider would not be moved on in the wake of Zarco’s surprise decision. This way KTM has one experienced figure backed up by a promising rookie in both of its set-ups.

But Binder is no lousy substitute. His recent performances have inspired bittersweet emotions. At times audiences have been in awe as he’s fought off the hoards of Kalexes and occasional Speed Up with a bike that factory bosses will readily admit is not up to scratch. Yet there’s the feeling we’ve been robbed of what could have been a titanic championship fight with Alex Marquez.

“It’s disappointing, super disappointing,” Binder recently said of his absence from this year’s title fight. “You can’t change the past, only the future. It’s pointless to cry over spilt milk. It is what is. Things would be different now if it didn’t start off so difficult. Now we wouldn’t work they way we did. Everything has a positive and a negative. We are in a strong way.”

But Binder has kept his head down and remained focussed in light of the continual chassis tweaks and changes that came to characterise the first half of KTM’s Moto2 campaign. Certain rides – notably his epic win in Austria – caught the attention of team bosses and showed he is willing to risk when set-up is far from perfect.

Poncharal recently told Crash.net’s Peter McLaren, “The race he did in Austria was a work of art. Because clearly his package was not the best and he managed to lead from turn one to the flag. He was constant for lap-after-lap and didn’t crack despite having probably the most pressure of anyone on the grid. He’s a hero for me.”

His riding style and natural aggression should be a apt fit at KTM. Binder has been a match for anyone on the brakes this year and the RC16 demands to be grabbed and ridden at the limit. “For sure you need to risk in every single braking [zone],” was Pol Espargaro’s reply when asked how to extract the maximum from KTM’s ‘Bull’ earlier this year. At present Binder’s been honing the relevant riding style to overcome the shortcomings of his current bike.

Lecuona is an intriguing choice to replace him at Tech 3 KTM. Youth over experience was the order of the day as Mika Kallio and Bradley Smith, test riders past and present were overlooked in favour of a 20-year old with just 53 GP starts and two podiums. This represents a risk. But paddock whispers also hinted at several names – Alex Marquez, Remy Gardner and Jorge Martin – turning the offer of a one-year deal down with a view to challenging at the front in Moto2.

By Neil Morrison @neilmorrison87

Photos by KTM Images

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